Sunday, September 1, 2013

Yea, Victoria

Though not a museum I thought I would talk about my most recent natural history experience, a visit to the world famous Devonian/Silurian site at Yea, Victoria.

Recently the National Dinosaur Museum has completed its ‘Dinosaurs Down Under’ road show. Having won a grant to participate in Australia’s National Science Week, the NDM was to visit 10 rural locations in NSW and Victoria, set up an exhibit at each location and have an international speaker (in this case the Berlin based, Hungarian palaeontologist, Dr Marton Rabbi) give a lecture or two to the townsfolk, before packing up and moving on.
Dr Rabbi's talk at Shepparton, Victoria.

Over a two week period our little road show visited Cootamundra, West Wyalong, Griffith (where I was born), Hay, Deniliquin, Echuca, Shepparton, Wangaratta, Lakes Entrance and Eden. At Wangaratta it became clear that the truck we had could not make the 4 hour drive over the Great Alpine Road (as it was winter and snowing) so I had to drive the long way round. This trip, almost all the way down to Melbourne, had the bonus of passing near Yea.

The township was first surveyed in 1855 and was named after Colonel Lacy Walter Yea, a British officer killed in the Crimean War. Fossils of strange looking plants were discovered there in 1875, but the importance of these fossils was not recognised until just before the Second World War (1935) when Isabel Clifton Cookson- an Australian Palaeobotanist- first described the species.
One of the best specimens on display 
 at the National Dinosaur Museum
in Canberra

At the time they were thought to be as old as the Silurian, though it’s now recognised the original site only dates back to the Devonian. Other sites have been found nearby that do indeed date back to the first date, meaning the Yea fossils are still of great historical importance.

So what are these fossils and why was I so keen to get there? Well, amongst a few other things are amazing specimens of Baragwanathia, considered the world’s oldest vascular (leafy) plant. Though the species has since been found in Canada and China, the Yea specimens are by far the best and most numerous. They are considered lycopods, a group that has over 1,000 living species today (such as club mosses and quillworts). They would grow into the largest plants of their day (the tree-like Lepidodendron) before being replaced by true trees, flowers and grasses.

Clearly visible are the small, hair-like
structures considered to be the
world's 1st leaves.
At Yea’s information centre (located at the back of Marmalade’s CafĂ©- try the homemade jam slice, it’s delightful) you can get a small pamphlet about the site and a map on how to get there. To quote the pamphlet ‘It is believed that the Baragwanthia plant formed a scrubby covering across what was once a tidal flat for an ancient ocean around 400 million years ago according to the best geological dating’.

For myself I’d have to say this is one of the most accessible fossils sites I have ever heard of. You just drive outside of town a few minutes, down Limestone Road, drive a few hundred meters to the tip of the hill and there it is, right alongside the road.

I pulled the truck up and began to hunt about along the open cuts, carefully searching for any signs of ancient life. Here and there were clear impressions, though impressions of what I have no idea.

One looked like a worms burrow to me, though it could just as easily been a prehistoric sock.

 Every hill had a cutting you can search through, and I was there during winter so there was little danger of coming across any of the nastier, still living inhabitants of the region. This is an important point and if you are thinking of visiting the area listen carefully, BEWARE OF SNAKES. High grass, good trees, thick bushes all suggest the best basking place for a cold snake is the exact places where you can see the fossils- and in this part of the country there would be plenty of the scaly terrors- so once again BEWARE OF SNAKES.

To show you how dangerous the area could be, I was so fixated on seeing a fossil in the rocks that I never noticed the numerous wombat holes covering the opposite side of every hill, so one last time, BEWARE OF SNAKES!

My trip was a short one as I still had hours and hours to go to the next location for the dinosaur tour, but it was still a thrill to walk along an ancient sea shore, back when life first started taking over the planet.
Surely one of the world's more picturesque fossil sites

The Wyoming Dinosaur Center

Nestled along the Bighorn River, located near the centre of Wyoming is the small town of Thermopolis, and in the middle of Thermopolis is the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. Driving into town you certainly get the feeling Thermopolis knows it’s on to a great thing as hints about the museum are everywhere.

There’s a dinosaur statue along the main road and dinosaurs signs everywhere. My favourite thing is the giant green dinosaur footprints stomping along the road to the museum’s front door…genius.

Driving about the museum I have to say it doesn’t look like much from the outside, basically it looks like a large airplane hangar- indeed that’s probably what the building is because the treasures inside certainly need a lot of space.

I work at another dinosaur museum that resembles this one in many ways. It’s mostly a single room that people get to walk around in, so I truly appreciate what this place does. The dinosaurs themselves create the galleries, as each is a spectacular as the next, so you find yourself looking in awe and one beast, only to turn about or walk a few steps and find yourself face to face with something else equally as inspiring. I really like the museum.

Amongst the amazing specimens on display are a Maiasaura feeding a nest of hatchlings, the first ever Albertaceratops, and the rare Therizinosaurus and a T.rex skeleton (Stan I do believe) attacking a Triceratops. Along one wall are a number of ichthyosaurs, a long necked elasmosaur and a pliosaur.

There are local species such as Maiasaura and the small saber-tooth cat, Dinictis.
There is a wonderful Asian display containing specimens such as a sprinting Velociraptor turning on a Protoceratops, a Tuojiangosaurus and a fearsome Monolophosaurus attacking the incredibly tiny sauropod, Bellusaurus.
There are the standard species, Coelophysis, and extremely rare species, ‘Jimbo the Supersaurus, an enormous 106ft sauropod that dominates the middle of the display and is the reason for the size of the building. This thing is huge (one of the largest sauropods ever mounted), and even better, you get to walk around it, a 360 degree view, and not even that you get to see it standing by some of the larger predators- and just how tiny they are by comparison.

Just as spectacular and important is one of the museums smallest specimens, the Thermopolis Archaeopteryx. As far as I know this is the only actually specimen of this iconic species in the US (and I’m proud to say the 3rd one I have seen after the Berlin and London specimens….which now that I think about it may actually be both counter-parts of the same specimen).

 This one is not behind bulletproof glass like the others and you can get rather close to it. The lighting also makes it easy to see the fossil in detail.

One display I really like and haven't really seen in any other museum is the display of eggs here. These have been peeled back and prepared in such a way that you can see the tiny little bones that had been protected inside the hell for millions of years.

Another great species is Bambiraptor, the first I have seen in all the museums I have ever visited.

One corner of the display has a large window through which you can watch people preparing fossils. Wyoming is of course a hotbed for dinosaur fossils and there are a number of operating quarries near the museum where specimens are collected for preparation. When I was there they were working on a new Camarasaurus. The museum also runs digs that the general public can join in for a fee, also there’s an opportunity for people to help prepare fossils and for students to do courses which I believe end with university credits (I would look into this properly rather then just trust my memory).

The museum is open 7 days a week, from 10-5, and is closed on some holidays. The prices also vary during different seasons so for opening and prices I suggest you check the museum’s website if you’re headed that way.

The sun sets early during winter in this part of the world and we had a long way to drive to our hotel so we were back on the road, leaving behind a museum full of some of the world’s most important fossils from all over the world. Indeed the Wyoming Dinosaur Center consistently tops the best dinosaur museum’s you can visit in the states, so if you’re planning a holiday to the west, I suggest this destination must top your list.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Buffalo Bill Historical Centre

Yellowstone was a bust…well that’s what you get when you visit in the bizarre off-season the region has between the busy summer and winter seasons. One thing I found frustrating about touring the US (and something that helped prompt this blog) is that there really is no central hub for tourist information. You need to either know exactly where you want to go and what it is you want to see and what questions you need to ask, or else you could be left out in the cold…so to speak.
Case in point. I spent weeks investigating this trip to Yellowstone National Park and nowhere, and I mean nowhere, does it mention you cannot drive through from the north entrance at Gardiner to Cooke City. Certainly it says many roads can be closed, and how impossible it is to get to certain features in the park during winter without snowmobiles or other snow traveling vehicles, but when we arrived it was still a month before winter began. Yet there was no sign, no message, not even a cheeseboard mentioning don’t drive down this road as it was closed. Luckily, I asked at the main ranger station inside the park before we headed towards the interior and ruined an entire day, or worse, got stuck.
Getting back on point about a central information hub for US tourism, nowhere could I find information warning me that, during the last months of autumn, many tourist destinations, including hotels by the way, are closed until the start of winter and the snow season. If you’re traveling north during late October/early November, you need to meticulously go through each and every destination and location you will be traveling too, INCLUDING all the roads between these locations to ensure you can physically travel. Google Maps was of some help in this planning as it did occasional come up with a warning that a certain road may be closed, but its Google maps, so always take this information with a grain of salt and follow up on anything it tells you.
Driving through the sleepy town of Cody towards a snow capped mountain, you quickly come across the town’s current claim to fame (maybe that’s overstating it, how about current reason for visiting), the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre.
Having just undergone a rather expensive facelift and reopening in 2012, the centre isn’t actually a single entity but a number of organisations under the same roof. Of interest to us here is the Draper Museum of Natural History, and for the life of me I cannot recall how I’d heard about the museum- but I was quickly thankful that I’d made the effort to visit.
The Buffalo Bill Historical Centre is damn impressive. The place is huge, with a large log cabin welcoming visitors into the natural history section- an entire cabin, and that’s only the entrance. The Wyoming outdoor hall of fame has some very unusual displays, from rustic homemade furniture to an amazing chandelier made from (what I assumed was) elk horns. At first I was disturbed how many animals had died for such a piece, but the display explains elk and deer lose their horns every year, and though some may have been from hunted animals, most of the antlers had simply been picked up off the ground after mating season. 

Greater Yellowstone Natural History Hall

Next is a series of life-like displays depicting animals from the local region. Bears fighting ferocious wolverines and big horn sheep climbing fantastic mountain displays lined the entrance of something spectacular. Dropping away is what I can only describe as a large, spiralling corridor (as its far too big and grand to be called a stairwell), which ends several floors below at a large, illuminated map of the region.

As you wind your way down you enter little side corridors with each containing lifelike displays to walk through. Reconstructed forests with owls, stouts, bobcats, hornets nests, moose, fly-fishing, parts of rivers- with    some items along the roof or buried in the floor with plexiglass flooring that you walk across.
This long descent ends in a big display on the geology of Wyoming- a place as many of us know renowned for its dinosaur fossils. Here are dinosaur footprints and a large reconstructed rock canyon with dinosaur bones and a raptor running across the top. It’s not just dinosaur’s either, there’s a nice sabre-tooth skeleton bounding down at you from the top of one display, along with mammoth and human remains. There’s also a display of fossils from the nearby Green River formation, including fish and stingrays.

This is all great, but the single display that really makes this part of the museum world class is the rock wall running along one entire end of the hall. At least two (maybe three) floors high, this reconstructed cliff has a replicated fossil dig at the base, with various levels revealing how palaeontologists and anthropologists find and catalogue fossils. And what bones were they digging up?

Hanging above your head, as though falling off a cliff to their death, is a plummeting bison herd. This amazing piece is unlike anything I have seen in any natural history museum I’ve ever visited and verges more on art than display. Standing under this piece is both awe inspiring and intimidating.

To return to the ventral entrance you next walk through a few subterranean corridors that house the Buffalo Bill Collection. If you like the Old West, this is the place for you as there’s gunfighter paraphernalia, wagons, old saddles and a large library where you can research the history of the west.

Plains Indians Museum
 Containing items from Plains Tribes such as the Arapaho, Lakota, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Pawnee, the second part of the historical centre is the Plains Indian Museum. Once again this is a huge building, the size of an airplane hangar.
One corner has a native tipi, with walls strewn with the most magnificent native art- most on cured animal hides. War bonnets, weapons and the general instruments of native life making for great viewing, but like earlier this remarkable museum steps things up a notch. When you turn a corner and enter what looks like an IMAX theatre, one wall has been left blank to allow images and movies to be projected on a western scene.
Before this is a life-scene from the Plains Indians (a word I generally don’t like to use by the way, but it’s the one the museum itself uses), with various parts of the display highlighted or darkened as a multi-media story unfolds all about you. This is really good fun and a nice and clever way of educating the general public.

One thing that caught my interest was the display of native artefacts from the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There is a lot of this stuff at a number of museum’s so I’m not 100% certain the significance of these pieces. If they are the real thing, then WOW, but if they’re pieces with what you could call peripheral influence (items from the tribes but not owned by individuals who’d actually participated in the battle), then nice, interesting and great to see, but the fact that I left this display with questions may mean a little more scripting may be needed here.

The display ends at a frontier log cabin and (if memory serves me) a native sweat-lodge that you can walk in and again watch a multimedia display…I did mention this place is big!

As an Australian I would say the only thing missing was someone, somewhere in the display I could talk too. It sounds strange, but I met very few Native Americans in my three years in the US and would have loved the opportunity to chat and ask some questions. To be fair though, we were there during the off season leading up to winter and most places in the north were either closed or understaffed before the on season rush, so they may have people in there during these times.

Whitney Gallery of Western Art

The third section of this complex is the Gallery of Western Art. Hanging on the walls here are numerous paintings and statues of the quintessential western scenes.
Cowboys, cattlemen with columns of longhorns being driven across a grassy plain, frontiersmen fighting wild animals, wild animals in majestic poses in majestic scenery, natives either suffering or living a free life, here you’ll see all this. Many of these images are famous so are likely from quality artists, I just didn’t know any of them.

This gallery ends in one of the most picturesque windows you will ever see which creates a living painting showing the seasonal changes of an actual western landscape. During our visit we got to see a snow covered plain with white peaked mountains in the distance. Fantastic, and again a very clever use of space.

For any fan of the West Wing, you’ll likely remember there was always a statue of a frontiersman astride a bucking horse in the Oval office. ‘Rough Rider’ is a statute built by famed western artist, Frederick Remington, and the gallery contains many fine examples of his work, both in statue form and paint. They have even rebuilt Remington’s workshop in one corner, a brief look into the workroom of a true artist.

Cody Firearms Museum

The fourth and last gallery was a real eye opener and brings home the struggle the US is having today after the recent tragedies in that country.  The love affair American’s have with guns goes back a long way and is well and truly ingrained into many parts of the nation’s society. This is most obvious in the Cody Firearms Museum where there are thousands, and I do mean thousands of weapons on display.

These guns are sorted into makers, time and conflicts, hand guns, rifles and machine guns. Row after row of guns, walking you through the history of the United States and the weapons they used to define the nation today.
Their fights against the natives, the French, the British, the Germans, Cuba, Mexico, drug runners, beasts and birds, the mob- the guns on display were truly amazing.
What was somewhat disturbing was the hunting lodge that takes up one end of this display. Inside hang dozens of animals heads, though most if not all were antlered beasts from the American west. I don’t recall there being a bear or cougar- perhaps seeing one of these beasts dead would have been one step too far for visitors.

“We believe in a spirit, definable and intellectually real, called ‘The Spirit of the American West.'”. This is the unifying theme of all five museums and it’s hard to disagree as they do seem to cover everything. In conclusion, for a museum that wasn’t really on our itinerary and we had really no reason to visit, the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre turned out to be a true gem and worth the drive if you find yourself visiting Yellowstone National Park.